Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Clicking Repeatedly

Going In Circles
One of the selling points when Diablo was released was how "replayable" it was. The game randomly generated the 16-level dungeon every time a new game was started, and certain quests and enemies would only be seen on second or third playthroughs. What caught me off guard was how the game essentially forced me to replay the game in order to progress to the end.

The dungeon in Diablo is divided into four areas of four floors each. After getting through the first four cathedral floors with my melee warrior, I was immediately overwhelmed in the new catacombs area. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong, but after consulting the manual I realized that the game expects you to take an existing character through the game several times in order to level up and acquire the appropriate gear to take you to the end. After replaying the first four floors, I had to restart again on hitting the caves at the ninth floor. Once I made it to hell, I had to restart a third time. It was only on that fourth playthrough that I made it to the end and killed Diablo himself. This of course lets you see new enemy types and try some different quests, but it never really sat well with me. It was too videogame-y for my tastes and felt like a lazy way to pad the game's length. There's no narrative reason given for the ability restart at will, and it's a case where the gameplay completely steamrolls the plot. While I was playing Deathspank, the recent action RPG from Ron Gilbert and Hothead Games, I laughed when a character implies that the magical underwear the titular character is wearing is the reason he is able to resurrect at the nearest outhouse upon death. It doesn't matter that the reason is ridiculous; it just matters that a reason is given at all.

Despite my complaints above, I didn't really mind too much while playing. I was addicted to buying new gear for my character by this point. Each time I restarted the blacksmith seemed to have particularly good gear for me to buy at that initial start. There's also the undeniable satisfaction of easily slaughtering monsters that previously gave me trouble. The biggest problem was that after a while, lower level monsters no longer gave me any experience points. Experience is given out on a sliding scale depending on the player's level and the monster's level. On my third playthrough, I didn't earn any experience until the seventh floor or so. On my fourth playthrough, it took until the tenth floor to start earning experience. There was no point in killing earlier monsters, so I found myself running through each floor looking for the next staircase down until I got to a point where I thought it might be worthwhile to start killing things again. This was tedious.

I finished the game at level 25, finished all the game's quests, and saw just about all the different types of enemies in the game. I'm pretty sure that it's impossible to play as a warrior and not have to replay the game to get to the end. I'd be interested to hear if playing as the rogue or mage classes changed this. Leveling up your character is capped at 50, but I don't think it's possible to get to that level while playing single player. Even the monsters in the last few floors would eventually stop giving experience. Multiplayer characters can access harder difficulty levels not available in single player, so players can continue to develop their character further after finishing the game the first time.

Diablo 2 does things pretty much as differently as possible. Instead of one ever-deepening dungeon, Diablo 2 introduces large landscapes full of monsters and small two- or three-floor dungeons, along with larger quest-specific dungeons. Their layouts are still randomly generated, but the vastly increased scale of the settings is one of the first things I noticed after playing the first game. The environments are varied, there are more monsters, and the quests are more involved and often have multiple parts to them. Quests do not reset, but you can access all areas and bosses previously encountered on those quests. The game is divided into four Acts (five with the expansion installed) that feature different environments and monsters. While this is the same number of sections in Diablo, there is much more variety within all of the dungeons' layouts and atmosphere. Act II took me to a sewer, a desert wasteland, Egyptian themed tombs, Gothic catacombs, and an Arabian palace.

Compared to the first game, Diablo 2 is massive in terms of how much area there is to see and explore. Because of this, the designers were able to balance things so that there is very little need to return to previous areas to grind for levels or gear. If the only reason you're playing is to see the story and beat the game, there is much less repetition required to do so. Especially if you're like me and explore every corner of the map, killing every enemy you come across, there's no reason you can't make it at least all the way to Act IV without having to redo a single dungeon. In Diablo, clearing a floor left it clear until you restarted the game. Diablo 2 respawns all enemies and bosses whenever you load the game up or you move from one one Act's area to another. This way, you can choose to return to an area to fight tougher enemies or bosses as often as you want in order to get better gear. Like restarting in Diablo, this really makes no narrative sense, especially when you vanquish one of the Prime Evils for the first time, then immediately return to do it again for better gear. Again, though, gameplay is the ruler.

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Besides the increased area of the game, the other frighteningly large change from Diablo to Diablo 2 is the addition of skills and a skill upgrade tree to go along with it. Leveling up in Diablo simply involved distributing five points between your various base stats. Diablo 2 still includes this, but now I get the pleasure of agonizing over where to put one point into a vast matrix of interrelated passive and active skills. Passive skills do things like improve elemental resistances or improve proficiency with certain weapons types. Active skills are powers that must be (surprise!) activated by the player and require mana. Now even melee characters need to manage their mana pool. A degree of planning is then required to develop an effective character. There aren't enough points to effectively use every skill available, so you have to decide which track to follow. I played a melee barbarian character, and while all of his active skills were geared towards various forms of controlling how hordes of demons attack up close, there are definite tracks ideal for solo play or multiplayer.

I deliberately didn't consult any guides for the "ideal" way to level my character. I was trying to play it as close as possible to how I would have played the game when it first came out. I've never been one of those players who tries to find the "perfect path" through a game. No min-maxing here! I've read some players' complaints that Diablo 2 makes you choose 2 or 3 skills to use exclusively. This is probably true if you're trying to make a character for a very specific use, but I had fun putting one point into a skill just to try it out and use as I saw fit. It was exciting trying new things out.

Diablo 2 came with five classes, and the expansion added two more, so there are very different ways to play the game, but even within classes there is a lot of replayability as players can tailor a class to one play style or another. The patch released only a few months ago added the ability to freely reset a character's stat and skill points so that they can be reallocated from scratch. This can only be done once, but it provides more flexibility for new players like me who discover that maybe they didn't choose so wisely while developing their character. Once I got more familiar with how the skills worked in the game, I used the free respec and chose my skills a little more judiciously.

The above screenshot is my Diablo 2 character after I had finished the game. If I want I can start the game over in a harder difficulty. I also have the option of taking this character into multiplayer games. I don't know what Diablo 2's level cap is, but I have a lot more options for continuing with this character if I choose to. Between how acquiring gear changed in Diablo 2 and how leveling up expanded, it's obvious that one of the goals in Diablo 2's development was to give people as many options as possible so that different types of players could all find a way to have fun playing the game.

My next post will probably not be as long but will compare how the two games present their story, along with what I thought was the most disappointing aspect of Diablo 2.


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